By Diane Eisenman
I knew I had arrived at Jim Self’s house when I saw the window shaped like a tuba, and a tuba silhouette on the white metal gate. The license plate on the car read “I OOMPAH.”
As I climbed a short flight of stairs, Jim opened the door to his magnificent music room, built 20 years ago to house his tuba collection and support his many other musical activities, including teaching, recording, practicing, composing and jamming. He dubs himself a “musicholic,” and here he spends most of his days making his life a creative one.
Why a tuba? Back in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the junior high band director needed a tuba player who knew something about music. Thus Jim, a guitar player, was recruited and received honors for his playing. Eventually he decided to become a band director. After college, he joined the U.S. Army Band. Subsequently, he added university teaching, freelance work, and a symphony orchestra to his CV.
Pursuing a doctoral degree at USC brought him to Los Angeles. Originally planning for a one-year residency, he immediately discovered countless opportunities freelancing in the entertainment industry and thus decided to make L.A. his home. To date, Jim has played in over 1,500 movies, television shows, and recordings. One major highlight was his five-note tuba solo near the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he declares the biggest tuba solo ever. He parlayed that into being John Williams’s go-to tuba player for 25 years.
Meanwhile, he joined orchestras including the Pasadena Symphony in 1975 as well as the Pacific Symphony and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in 1986. Because a tuba player is not required for all orchestra performances, Jim is able to stay involved in a variety of musical pursuits. He teaches at USC, performs chamber music, and enthusiastically pursues his creative talents through composing and jazz improvisation. He has composed over 60 pieces for solo, chamber groups, and orchestra and has recorded 14 CDs that are a mix of classical and jazz.
In an orchestra, the tuba doesn’t always get to do that much. Jim says the hardest part about being in an orchestra is just to get the job. After that? It’s easy. The most difficult thing can be to count rests, sometimes for 20 minutes. “But if I were playing all the time, it would be called a band!”
Still, the tuba can’t hide. All mistakes show. It is easy for the tuba to outdo the orchestra. The challenge is to create a blend with the trombones, basses, bassoons and tympani. Jim says his part in the orchestra is a social thing, building connections with others, since he doesn’t get many solos for himself. “It is more important to be a team player than to stand out. The bass sounds establish the root, bottom notes. When the root is in tune, the whole orchestra shines.”
Operas by Verdi and other Italian composers from the 19th century use the cimbasso rather than a tuba. The cimbasso is a valved (not a slide) contra-bass trombone that is very awkward to handle and hard to find. Jim asked Yamaha to make him a cimbasso that was easier to hold and transport. They did, and Yamaha dubbed it the Jimbasso (pictured here) in his honor. He is looking forward to performing with it this year in Nabucco and Rigoletto.
His challenge to us, the audience? “Listen to the tuba. Be aware of when it is and is not playing, and see what it adds to the drama. Note the beautiful chords it supports.” Though the orchestra is background, he suggests our experience will be heightened if we focus on the orchestral music as well as on the singers and the drama.
In the meantime, when he’s not making magic with his tuba, Jim flies his plane across the United States as well as to his second home in San Luis Obispo. “Even my plane has a tuba painted on the tail.”